Blog Post

Tigers, Humans, and Overlooked Opportunities

Nadia Ahmed | February 18, 2022

Inspired by some of my courses last year, I started reading about tiger-human relationships recorded in early modern and nineteenth-century English and American travel accounts in India; accounts in which men on a hunt roam wonderfully tigerish moonlit plateaus and where wounded tigers are whispered and dreamt about by vigilant villagers preparing for retaliation. These accounts, some written before, some after, and some in the midst of British colonization, read differently than early modern literary texts containing tigers. In Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Tamora is compared to a “hyenous tiger” (97), and the witches in Macbeth incorporate “tiger’s chaudron” (tiger guts) in their cauldron of morbid and denigrated ingredients like hemlock, the finger of a strangled infant, a Turk’s nose, and “Tartars lips” (121). Conceptions of tigers as ruthless and ferocious persist in later works of Western writers, from Charles Dickens to Rudyard Kipling. The option to either dominate or be dominated by tigers is depicted as a natural reaction to their ferocity. Dualisms are replete in Western figures of the tiger, who is either tamed or ferocious, captive or wild, subservient or violent. How do these dualisms in which tigers are either submissive to humans or consume humans, with little room for ambiguity, impact what is tiger, and also what is human? As the works of many contemporary writers and anthropologists like Annu Jalais, and Eduardo Kohn explore, human experiences with nonhumans are co-constitutive (I italicize “nonhumans” in an effort to put pressure on my own grouping of all other living beings and non-living objects under “nonhuman”). In other words, noticing how tigers relate to and represent humans is key in articulating precisely what is human, and what is tiger.

Keith M. Botelho examines how distinctions between beast and human blur in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice when Shylock “attempts to animalize the Christians,” in order to show that “all humans are already beastly and thereby equal,” challenging the Christians’ efforts to relegate Shylock to a beastly figure — a figure equivalent to both evil and brutishness — in order to oppress him (Munroe 73). While humans progressively move toward the beastly in The Merchant of Venice, beasts also “slid[e] toward humanity,” meaning that the beastly is ever-so-slightly mitigated by the human, not necessarily expanded or complicated in its own right (Munroe 78). A similar dynamic is captured in a 1792 article titled “The Royal Tiger” in London’s Literary Weekly Intelligencer. The article gives “European rapacity” as the reason why India is now “overrun with wild beasts” like tigers, who create the conditions for year-round instances in which several people are “carried off and destroyed” (The Royal 43). In this article, the rapacity of the Europeans and the tigers is simultaneously at play. Europeans are framed as looting India and then leaving its people in states of severe famine, while tigers are depicted carrying off and consuming starved Indian people. Visions of extreme hunger and flesh consumption heighten the beastly conceptions around the actions of both tigers and European invaders. And yet, while discussion of the beastly within humans appeared pertinent in early modern Europe, travel accounts set in India both during the early modern period and into the nineteenth century present a constellation of new, entirely refreshing relationships between tigers and humans.

On February 23rd of 1885, the Atlanta Constitution published an article about a moonlit tiger hunt in India. Southern India and the expansive Deccan Plateau are all that is disclosed in terms of the hunt’s actual geographic location, which is then described by the writer as “wonderfully tigerish” for containing the following characteristics:

[A] grassy level of a few hundred yards, fringed on the upper side by a long strip of thick jungle which ran over the brow of the hill into the neighboring valley, and bisected by a deep stony nullah, high banked, and doubtless filled by a foaming torrent in the wet season, but now boasting only the smallest trickle of white water, finding its way amid a disproportionately large bed of sand (Scenes in India 1).

This description already illustrates a deviation from most English literary works and travel accounts about tigers and tiger hunts. How does this nineteenth-century Western writer know what a tigerish location looks like, and how to use the word nullah to describe a river bed? And moreover, what should we make of this writer’s effort to notice what a tiger might perceive as an ideal space? I also wonder if and how tiger might co-constitute a landscape, shaping it into a particularly tigerish space. These questions may or may not have been considered by the writer, but nonetheless, the writer’s conception of what constitutes “tigerish,” reveals a keen curiosity about what and how tigers perceive. These early modern and nineteenth century accounts leave no doubt that certain Indians and their embeddedness with tigers are the inspiration for new thoughts around tigers and landscapes in the West. A journalistic and literary iconography of tigers emerged in America and England during this time, and this iconography was first made possible by a system of colonialism in South and Southeast Asia that positioned tigers as narrative foes and commercial conquests. While India alone is made up of a wide variety of people and customs, often specificities like region, ethnicity, and culture were largely unaccounted for in Western travel accounts in which tigers figure. Thus, “Indian” serves as an umbrella term for diverse groups of people with different relationships with tigers from all around the subcontinent. For instance, in Annu Jalais’s anthropological study titled People and Tigers in the Sundarbans, tiger-human co-constitution is complex: among other things, tigers and humans help, respect, traumatize, and kill each other. Even among the people of the Sundarbans, relationships with tigers are dynamic and various (Jalais 135). Additionally, a 1671 British travel account recounts a story about “a Moor” in Bengal having a premonitory dream that a tiger carried him off and killed him. The next evening, this person did all they could to lock themselves away, but sure enough, a tiger found the so-called Moor and killed him (Ogilby 262). Ghosts and dreams involving tigers often appear in these accounts, hinting at the haunting quality that may come with certain Indian peoples’ proximity to tigers, but it is unclear why these anecdotes appear in these accounts, and whether or not their inclusion simply speaks to orientalist fantasies of India as intellectually youthful and superstitious. Lastly, in other parts of India and at other points in history, tigers were perceived as worthy opponents for wrestling matches, like during the Mughal Empire reigns of Akbar (1542-1605) and Jahangir (1569-1627). Although Jahangir and his soldiers had guns, they chose to wrestle tigers without guns, instead supplying themselves with daggers and sticks — perhaps in an effort to match the tiger’s claws and teeth.

A group of boys painted and in tiger costumes on the way to the Mangalore Dasara procession in Mangalore from: Premnath Kudva. “Huli Vesha (Tiger Dance)”. Wikimedia Commons. 21 October 2007

As different Indian figures exemplify in these travel accounts, how tigers perceive, or represent people, not only shapes how people live, but also who people become. Living in close proximity to tigers demands a certain way of being. Along with a companion, the Atlanta Constitution writer of the moonlit tiger hunt followed their observant and knowledgeable Indian guide called “shikaree” or shikari, a big game hunter, into the forest. The writer describes the shikari’s movements during their walk to the tiger. According to the writer:

For a little time we walked in silence, smoking and enjoying the cool of the evening, while our aforesaid guide stole on before us lightly and silently as a wraith, creeping round the tree-trunks and picking his path through the carpet of fallen leaves without making the least noise to betray his movements (Scenes in India 1).

Attention to the tracker’s knowledge of how tigers perceive sound and movement illustrates what tiger-human co-constitution might necessarily look like within dynamics of hunting and survival. In order to coexist, humans and tigers become intelligent with one another. In order to find a tiger, the so-called wraith-like human adopts tiger traits, while the writer and his companion seemingly undo some of his work by smoking behind him, failing to change their stride to match the shikari’s. Numerous other accounts corroborate that attentiveness to one’s surroundings is a specifically tigerly behavior in English travel articles and accounts, which ultimately renders humans as similarly aware of tigers — a dynamic that acknowledges human vulnerability and mutability as much as it is attentive to tiger perception.

Within travel accounts like these, I am looking at scenes of what could have been in the West, but what ultimately wasn’t. In early modern English literature, humans defined themselves against “beasts” like tigers, and coming out of the nineteenth century, American and English newspapers showcased accounts of tiger expeditions in India in which tiger and human take on entirely new meanings. These accounts, which often depict tigers through the eyes of Indians, reveal tigers to be sensitive to sounds and sights, much like highly sensitive humans. Tigers are perceived as both builders and reflections of their environments, much like humans, and their choice to often live near a freshwater source and a cleared out patch of land close to trees reflects some of the habitat needs of early humans. These accounts show us that tiger is a category that holds beings with differing life experiences, from tigers with pasts of displacement, to tigers with close kinships with other species. But perhaps most pertinent to the focus of this blog, these travel accounts suggest that the literary figure of the tiger as brute in early modern English writing paints a limiting picture of tigers as a rhetorical strategy to separate human characters from perceived barbarity and ferocity, as well as to convey the strength of certain human characters’ convictions. While more recent literary depictions from around the world portray tigers in richness and complexity, like Julio Cortazar’s “Bestiary,” Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, and Jorge Luis Borges’ “Blue Tigers,” works on tigers as solely ferocious and antagonistic have made a stamp in our culture, like in Rudyard Kipling’s famous work, The Jungle Book. The persistence of tiger-as-brute depictions may suggest that we are not yet through with defining ourselves as superior in intelligence and altruism over others, nor might we be done utilizing tiger analogies and emotional rhetoric to ensure that our worldviews about the right and wrong kind of people are transmissible and deeply believed. What impact might the continued association of certain beings with indelible ferocity and depravity have on larger ideas of who we are, and who deserves what? Do works like these travel accounts of tigers in India serve as historical evidence that people and tigers from India helped transform and complicate categories of the human and the beastly in England and America? Perhaps these travel accounts are merely emblems of missed potential. I wonder all of these things as I picture a tiger resting underneath the moonlight that shines on the Deccan Plateau, keenly aware of each snap of a twig and every rustle of a leaf.

Works Cited

Jalais, Annu. People and Tigers: An Anthropological Study of the Sundarbans of West Bengal, India., 2004.

Munroe, et al. Ecological Approaches to Early Modern English Texts : a Field Guide to Reading and Teaching. Ashgate, 2015.

Ogilby, John, 1600-1676. America : Being the Latest, and most Accurate Description of the New Vvorld  Containing the Original of the Inhabitants, and the Remarkable Voyages Thither, the Conquest of the Vast Empires of Mexico and Peru and Other Large Provinces and Territories : With the several European Plantations in those Parts : Also their Cities, Fortresses, Towns, Temples, Mountains, and Rivers : Their Habits, Customs, Manners, and Religions, their Plants, Beasts, Birds, and Serpents : With an Appendix Containing, Besides several Other Considerable Additions, a Brief Survey of what Hath been Discover’d of the Unknown South-Land and the Arctick Region : Collected from most Authentick Authors, Augmented with Later Observations, and Adorn’d with Maps and Sculptures / by John Ogilby .. London, Printed by the author .., 1671. ProQuest,

“Scenes in India: Tiger Shooting by Moonlight in the Jungles. Exciting Sport in Southern India-The Chatter and Cry. While the Hunter’s Heart Is as Cold as the Daw on his Rifle Barrel – A Story of Rare Huntsmanship.” The Atlanta Constitution (1881-1945), Feb 23, 1885, pp. 1. ProQuest,

Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Macbeth. At the Clarendon Press, 1914, 1914.

Shakespeare, et al. Titus Andronicus. Updated ed. / edited by Alan Hughes.. ed., Cambridge University Press, 2006.